Hello all! I’m joining Heather on the ‘Real Life PhD Student’ blog, and hope to bring an Arts & Humanities perspective to her revealing ruminations on the doctoral life.
With summer coming, the academic cycle turns to reflection and planning. It’s time for our annual reviews, we’re surrounded by end-of-year assessments (if we’re not marking them, our supervisors are!), and the eerie quiet in the libraries and cafés means that yet another year group have ventured into The Real World. So it seems appropriate to consider what I’ve learned (so far!) about doing a PhD.
A few things I wish I’d known when I began:
Make the most of every opportunity. In fact, make opportunities.
At the end of your three (or four…or…) years, your thesis will be examined. Those 90,000-ish precision-crafted words will be scrutinised by the leading thinkers in your field; hopefully you became closely acquainted with the finer points of your chosen lofty theory, not just the dregs of the cafetière. But this vision of the viva as the finish line obscures the fact that there is so much more available to you. Use the flexibility of a PhD schedule to develop other valuable skills: volunteer, teach, network, go to conferences, organise conferences, engage with your department’s research activities, read around, write around, develop your critical vocabulary, learn a language…
Leave your desk occasionally
Don’t let the PhD consume you. If you spend every waking hour hunched over a book/laptop/lab bench your work will suffer, not to mention your general well-being (for starters, you’ll notice a sharp decline in the number of sleeping hours). To learn how to structure your argument, don’t you need to see how things fit together in the world? To recognise the potential impact of your research, don’t you need to be connected to the reality of people’s lives? If the vanishing point of your horizon is no further than the edge of campus, you’ll never be able to bounce back when your journal article is rejected/conference application is turned down/supervisor returns your beloved chapter covered in red squiggly lines (whether this is more painful on ‘track changes’ or by hand I haven’t yet decided). A little bit of perspective does you good.
Get used to feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing
Ahh, the feeling will follow you like a lovable pup. The transition between a taught Master’s and a PhD is bigger than you realise, and the unsettling sense that someone hasn’t told you the very thing you need to know is really quite normal. It’s the fact of not knowing everything that drives your research: nurture the ability to just get on with it.
And you, dear reader? If you stumbled across a time-machine, what advice would you give your fresh-faced self?